Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a slow-burning romance engineered to appear as if it were a lost relic of American cinema. Opening with an introductory title card that reads “This Was in Texas,” this quasi-western establishes from the start its fondness for a bygone Americana and period of filmmaking, and the results are at once striking and dubious. The story, set during the ’70s, introduces childhood sweethearts and young outlaws Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) as they bicker and sweetly make up—a scene that culminates with Ruth’s disclosure that she’s pregnant. Following a series of armed robberies they commit, though, they’re caught in a police shootout at their homely shack on a hill. During the blitzkrieg of exchanging bullets, an accomplice is shot dead and Ruth wounds an officer, but Bob takes the blame, with one echoing stipulation for the mother of his unborn child: “Just wait for me.”
Years pass following Bob’s 25-to-life sentencing and incarceration, along with a trail of soulful, voiceover-ready missives from Bob’s jail cell to Ruth’s house. As their cherubic daughter Sylvie’s fourth birthday approaches, however, Ruth receives news from the sheriff she shot, the exceedingly humble Patrick (Ben Foster), that Bob has escaped. From there, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints splinters into a rather bifurcated narrative of the star-crossed couple, following Bob’s manhunt-baiting journey home and the increasingly maternal Ruth’s precarious predicament, which pits love against peacefulness and loyalty against protection.
Director David Lowery, with the aide of Bradford Young’s sublime cinematography, goes to great lengths to stylistically evoke the emotionally complex nature of the characters’ forlornness, but the film’s highly calculated beauty suffocates rather than elevates the story’s emotional underpinnings. There’s a sense of the couple’s romantic yearning that pervades throughout, and yet the film doesn’t entirely satisfy as a mood piece; the characters feel unequivocal and their emotions perpetually telegraphed, robbing the audience of a sense of discovery, of truly experiencing their emotions for ourselves. A film can wear its heart on its sleeve without constantly pointing at it. Like the hopelessly romantic Bob, Lowery loads the film with all the idealized romanticism of an ostentatious, twangy poem without pausing to understand when a more relaxed approach would be more sincere.
More problematic is the overly pure and precious depiction of motherhood. Ruth and Sylvie rescue a box of stray kittens together, and the young mother, a conflicted victim of circumstance who listlessly awaits and fears Bob’s possible return, innocently and frequently flirts with Patrick after he confesses his affection for her, ratcheting up the dramatic irony of their burgeoning intimacy. After celebrating Sylvie’s birthday, Ruth explains to Patrick that the police reports that stated she was uninvolved with Bob’s crimes were delicately fabricated, and that perhaps she “knew what she was doing.” This admission, though truthful to the character as we first come to understand her in the film, seems like a halfhearted means for Lowery to give dimension to a character that’s uninterestingly flattened into a waiting damsel in distress. Patrick’s response to Ruth is, of course, “When I see you with your daughter, all I see is good,” hammering home Lowery’s notion of Ruth as a quintessential force of benevolence, a woman miraculously redeemed by fulfilling her role as a mother.
From its minimalist fiddle-friendly soundtrack and auburn-colored visual palette to its idiomatic title, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints aims to exude a folksy poeticism reminiscent of the elliptical style of Terrence Malick, Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, and even Paul Thomas Anderson. Lowery has spoken in interviews of these highly influential predecessors, and his second feature is a well-studied work of picturesque cinema. However, there’s a confidence in the film that’s more grounded in familiarity than singularity: Lowery riffs on other filmmakers’ aesthetics instead of developing his own organic, unique vision. Make no mistake, this is a finely postured, technically proficient marvel, one that delicately collates and balances the excellent work of its collaborators (including Young, composer Daniel Hart, its suitably solemn cast), but for all its earnest dialogue and lens flare-filled diorama of Texan landscapes, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is damned by its overly laminated rigorousness.